The Great Los Angeles Revolt Against Cars


StartFragmentL.A. voters have chosen to tax themselves to build a citywide rail system. Can rail also resurrect the city’s long-vanished middle class? EndFragment

On May 20, 2016, residents of downtown Los Angeles boarded a passenger rail car and traveled 15 miles west to the water's edge-something no Angeleno had been able to do since the early 1950s. The new Expo Line extension, colored aqua because of its connection to the ocean, prompted memories of the old Pacific Electric streetcar, which traveled practically the same route before the line was shut down in 1953. "My grandparents talked about going to the beach on dates from Mid-City," says Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. "I wanted to do that for my grandkids."

Denny Zane was on the Santa Monica platform at 4th Street and Colorado Avenue that day. He'd been mayor of the beach town in 1990, when the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission Oater known as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro) had purchased the Expo Line right-of-way from the Southern Pacific Railroad. City fathers had been so sure the new line would get built that they bought space for a maintenance yard at Bergamot Station, temporarily leasing it out as an arts center. Twenty-six years later, nobody wanted to evict the galleries. "So the maintenance yard gets put on Stewart and Exposition, across the street from my house!" Zane says. "I'm really having to be the good citizen."

The persistence of regional leaders has finally paid off. After the success of two recent tax-hiking ballot measures, Los Angeles County can finally embark upon "the largest local infrastructure initiative in this nation's history, times two," as Garcetti likes to say in speeches. Over the next 40 years, the region's transportation map will be transformed, with $120 billion in tax revenue generated for 37 light rail, subway, bus rapid transit, bike, and highway improvement projects.


The voters who approved those measures clearly want relief from two of L.A.'s signature problems: smog and traffic. But the measures' architects seek an even more fundamental transformation-a plan that would foster economic no less than spatial mobility. From local hiring initiatives to transitoriented development, their goal is to reinvent the city, using transportation as both a job creator and a solution to such problems as inequality and gentrification. "It's kind of a big-picture, modern Marshall Plan for Los Angeles," says Madeline Janis, executive director of Jobs to Move America, a transit jobs advocacy coalition.

As politicians from Donald Trump on down profess a desire to rebuild America through infrastructure investment, Los Angeles can serve as a model for how to do it in a way that benefits riders, workers, and businesses alike. But can Los Angeles meet all these lofty goals? Or will remaking L.A. crash into the same neighborhood inequities, political infighting, and lack of Washington support that has bedeviled the city for decades?

One reason for optimism: Despite all the moments when it never looked more distant, Los Angeles rail has become the little engine that could.

AT ONE TIME, LOS ANGELES actually hosted the most extensive urban rail network in the world. In the late 1800s, real-estate developers like Henry Huntington wanted to entice homebuyers to move to far-flung properties across southern California. They built the Pacific Electric Railway in 1901, privately operated streetcars that enabled homeowners to commute into job centers. The red and yellow cars stretched farther than any system envisioned today, spanning four counties and hundreds of miles.

A popular conspiracy theory, most vividly illuminated in the animated classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit, suggests that a consortium of oil, auto, and tire interests bought up streetcar companies and dismantled them, building freeways where the trolleys once rode. The truth is more mundane but no less tragic. Real-estate tycoons developed the region haphazardly, using streetcars to connect diffuse populations to dispersed centers of work, rather than to the kind of dense downtown that characterized older cities. Paradoxically, a region designed for mass transit ended up receptive to sprawl.

"Automobile technology took over like smartphone technology," says Ethan Elkind, a law professor at UC Berkeley and UCLA, and the author of Railtown, a history of Los Angeles mass transit. Beset by fare hikes, strikes, and slowness, and lacking public subsidies, the streetcars couldn't compete with cars and freeways. Public money for infrastructure went to build roads for auto-hungry residents, not to rescue rail. The Pacific Electric took its last trip in 1961; buses became the only mass transit option left in the city.

Legendary Mayor Tom Bradley swept into office in 1973 promising to break ground on a high-speed rapid transit system within 18 months. But the public refused to support it; county voters rejected three separate ballot measures from 1968 to 1976. Suburban opponents didn't feel they'd reap the benefits. "If voters had stepped in and agreed to fund it in '68, there was an 80 percent federal matching grant on the table," says Elkind. "Things were cheaper back then. The system would be two to three times larger than it is today."

By the time voters finally approved a half-cent sales tax for transit in 1980, federal dollars had dried up considerably. And congestion had increased so pervasively that the 88 cities of Los Angeles County each vied for the relief that rail could bring. It took five years from the voters' approval to even start a rail line, amid bureaucratic knife fights between the many competing interests, cities and neighborhoods. The first project, the Blue Line that connected the county's biggest cities (Los Angeles and Long Beach), came about because it ran through powerful Supervisor Kenneth Hahn's district. The Green Line resulted from an environmental lawsuit during the construction of the Century Freeway, which freed up a median strip on the freeway for rail. But the Green Line veered left as it approached LAX, the city's car-congested mega-airport, delivering its riders instead to the aerospace factories of the South Bay. By the time the line was finished, however, the Cold War had ended and the aerospace plants had closed.

Meanwhile, the densest corridor in the western United States, along Wilshire Boulevard, couldn't get a subway after a March 1985 methane gas explosion under a Ross Dress for Less store, which injured 23. Henry Waxman, the powerful congressman who represented the area, deemed the tunneling unsafe. Most experts thought the subsequent precautions planned for the Red Line subway ensured the line could proceed safely, but many suspected Waxman used safety as a pretext to side with constituents who didn't want to give low-income, minority residents easy access to their communities. Waxman authored congressional legislation barring the subway from venturing into his district, stunting its reach and effectiveness. The ban didn't get lifted for a generation.

In 1990, voters narrowly approved an additional half-cent sales tax, enabling Metro to purchase old rights-of-way from the streetcar days and move into the next phase of transit development. (This is why so much of L.A.'s transit is light rail without grade separation; existing corridors were already available, without the need for costly tunneling or elevated tracks.) But mismanagement and squabbling hampered progress. "Not in my backyard" community activists shut down proposed lines. A tunnel fire and a sinkhole along the Hollywood Boulevard section of the subway generated bad press. A decade long legal fight between Metro and a coalition representing bus riders, who argued rail was a racist benefit for wealthy commuters at the expense of poor people of color, delayed construction, too. A resulting consent decree increased the bus fleet and improved service for existing riders, but did not appreciably increase ridership, and diverted money from other transit improvements.

By the tum of the millennium, Metro was debt-ridden, distrusted, and cowed into scaling back ambitions. Amazingly, most rail fares were based on the honor system; the city couldn't afford turnstiles, and had scant personnel to check if riders actually paid. While a few lines did move forward-the subway from downtown to Hollywood, light rail to Pasadena and East L.A., and bus express service in the San Fernando Valley-they did little to reduce congestion or improve air quality. A growing population was sinking from the weight of too many cars. Something needed to change.

"I WAS STUCK IN TRAFFIC on Olympic," Denny Zane says, recalling a moment in 2007. The worsening gridlock called to mind an image of ice cubes freezing. ''You could see the future and it sucked." As he sat, Zane heard on the radio that Metro had no available funds for new projects for the next 30 years. "I knew we had three million more people expected. It would be just as if Chicago came here today-we're in near gridlock and Chicago descends upon us. Third-world status, here we come."

Two years earlier, Antonio Villaraigosa had become the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than 130 years, having pledged repeatedly during his campaign to build a "Subway to the Sea." Villaraigosa had served on the Metro board in the 1990s, supporting bus riders in the bus-versus-rail fight. But he'd evolved on the issue. "What I was saying [during my mayoral campaign] was we have to reimagine L.A.," Villaraigosa says. "If you can't move around you can't work."

Early in his first term, Villaraigosa got Waxman to agree to lift the ban on tunneling under Wilshire Boulevard. But he knew that without revenues, it didn't matter. And there had been one big change since 1990, the year of the last successful initiative for transit funding. Thanks to the notorious Proposition 13 and a separate ballot measure in 1996, local tax increases required a two-thirds majority of voters, far beyond what any transit initiative had ever received in Los Angeles. ''You can exit the European Union with a bare majority, but you can't get rail [in Los Angeles] without two-thirds," quips Elkind.

The high threshold demanded a broad coalition, and that required more than just a subway to the sea. Transit advocates needed something comprehensive to appeal to voters throughout the county, a full-service measure to improve all modes of transportation, from railways to freeways. And it had to be specific: Vague notions of "improving transportation" would not fly.

But supporters had two things going for them. First, there was L.A.'s traffic nightmare. The city remains the world's most congested, with the average commuter spending 104 hours in traffic per year. ''You only had to sell the plan, because the need slaps you in the face every day," says Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. Second, the upcoming 2008 election promised high Democratic turnout, the best demographics for progressive initiatives in decades.

Zane got to work building the coalition. He brought together environmentalists looking to reduce carbon emissions from cars, labor unions seeking good jobs building rail, and business groups wanting better quality of life for employees and customers. He called the new organization Move LA. "We could have been laughed off, but we weren't," Zane says. "The first meeting, I invited 35 organizations and 34 showed up." Some of these groups hadn't worked together in years, if ever. They spent close to a year developing a workable plan.


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